Repent to Live More Justly

By The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab

[The Presentation of Christ at the Temple; Luke 2:22-40, 2/2/14; Trinity, Plattsburgh, NY.]

The readings for this Christmas – Epiphany season are rich and full of meaning.  Mary and Joseph fulfill the practice of taking their new-born to the Temple.  Simeon sees in the child the help Israel has been longing for.  He is now ready to pass on himself – he is ready to be dismissed in peace.  Anna proclaims the same to any who will listen.  Joy is matched with tragedy.  Simeon says a sword – the crucifixion – will pierce Mary’s soul.

This Christmas – Epiphany season is followed by Lent, Good Friday, and Easter.  John the Baptist properly called the people to change their ways – to be ready to be baptized “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” We do well to mediate on repentance.  Jesus will announce the Kingdom saying, “. . . repent, and believe the good news.”

To repent comes from a Greek word that means to change your mind – to change your ways – to reform – to reshape your way of living.  Change to a new way of living is always part of living the Good News.  Four weeks and we will be into Lent – a period heavy on repentance.  Repentance and a way to understand it in this 21st century is what I want to center our thinking on in this sermon time.  My theme: repent to live more justly.

*     *     *

Let’s take our cue from Celtic spirituality.  Celtic spirituality centers on the goodness of life and us.  Sin, the shortfall from living as we should is real, but don’t dwell on it too long.  Confess what you’ve done wrong but don’t dwell on it.  Move on to a new way of living – of being more caring and fairer.

Let’s move away from so much of western, puritan-like spirituality that seems to be obsessed with guilt.  Life is basically good.  Be more loving and more just.  That is what God wants.  And God will help you to live that way.

This is no cheap grace.  This is no “happy church” message.  Don’t miss the hook in it.  Don’t miss what God wants – being more loving and just wherever we are – at home, at work, or deciding who to vote for.  That’s the hook – what God wants, not what we want.  The repentance God wants is change and growth – no groveling in guilt but change and growth.

God wants us to take our faith into daily life – take our faith out of the church onto the streets of Plattsburgh – the streets we walk wherever we are.  Take what we find in church into daily life.

In church, we hear “Love your neighbor.”  Take that into the world.   Love a crowd.  How do we love a crowd?  Love a crowd by practicing justice.  A fresh definition of justice – biblical but fresh – to be just is to seek equal opportunity to the good things in life for everyone.  Equal access to whatever helps people to become all they are created to be – minimum are food, clothing, and shelter; then, education, health care, meaningful work, deep friendship.

We so easily overlook being just whenever we think of how to live as Christians.  Repent wherever issues of justice are at stake.   Repent to live more justly.

*     *     *

You can even do it in church!  Ed was bothered about unjust public policies.  A presidential election was ahead.  He wondered how many of those beside him in church would even bother to vote.  Of those who would bother, he wondered if they would take their Christian ethics into deciding who to vote for.  He had his own convictions.  He would not insist others vote as he would.  He just wanted them to decide who to vote for on who could do the most to keep the nation just.  No party had the whole truth.

Then it was a happy day for Ed when he heard that a Sunday at church would be devoted to ways to take your faith into the voting booth.  Here is what his church did.

The week before the election for President, church bulletins announced the priest would lead a forum on “My Faith and My Vote” the next Sunday.  There would be a special parish meeting after worship.  After an introduction, two talks would be given – one by a supporter of the Republican candidate and one by as supporter of the Democratic candidate.  Each would speak for only two minutes.  Each spoke to the same two questions.

  1. How does the Christian faith influence the way I go about deciding who to vote for?
  2. What are the reasons my faith points me toward voting for the candidate I will vote for?

The floor would then be open to all – each was given two minutes.  After 20 minutes, all would discuss a third question.

  1. After the election, what can this church do and what can I do to help to heal any divisions in this nation and in our town? This discussion would be limited to 20 minutes also.

Well, it worked!  It went only 5 minutes over time and all left as friends – a lot to talk about but still friends.

This church’s members had changed from silence about their values and how they voted.  And they had grown in listening to others with the same values but a different way to apply them.  It was a time of repentance – of change and growth – of repentance to live more justly.

*     *     *

Now we seldom put justice and home life together – we seldom put justice and raising our children together.  Here is a story about a family learning to do just that.  The issue is will we leave our children alone to find their own way to faith or will we teach them our faith expecting they will find their own way to faith as adults.  The issue is one of justice.  Which way is more just – leave them alone or give them a start.

A survey of children entering kindergarten found out only half of them:

– recognized their own name when they heard it ; or

– could be articulate – could express – what they were feeling or thinking; or

– could count to five.

However, 81% could recognize the Coca-Cola sign and 69% could recognize the double arches of MacDonald’s.

Many had already been converted by advertising and the culture to consumerism.  Could they have recognized the manager and the shepherds and the three kings as easily?  That’s the issue of justice.  It’s not fair to leave our children exposed to conversion to consumerism.

I have two parents whose children can.  Theirs is a rich story of both God-talk and nurture – of living more justly.  All of them, boys, 5 and 7, and a 9-month old daughter, are in church and its classes Sunday by Sunday.  At home at bed time, the children ask their mother to sing “Amazing Grace” and ask God’s blessing on each other and anyone they name.  Reading comes from the bookshelf which includes Bible stories.  Further, they hold a family meeting about every two weeks on Saturday mornings for about 15-20 minutes.  To start, each tells of something appreciated about each of the others.  Then come any problems within the family – recently, it was over seats in the family car.  And, this detail, I find delightful.  If they don’t come to the meeting, they miss their allowance for that week.  These parents live in reality!

These parents were living the truth of the survey I quoted.  If they did not teach Christian faith and values, the culture would convert their children into consumers.  The idea that no teaching leaves children free to choose their faith as adults is a costly mistake – it is both costly and unjust.  No they would not be free.  Their children would have already been converted to the culture – the language and symbols – of consumerism – a religion all its own.

These parents had changed from the pattern of so many who do not bother to teach a faith at home to their children.  These parents were growing in repentance by living more justly.  They are more just with their children.

*     *     *

Repent, yes.

Change and grow.

Take your faith out the door.

Take it to how you decide whom to vote for.

Take it into your home or help your adult children take teaching the faith into their parenting.

Repent and live more justly in every part of daily life.

[The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab; Coordinator of Member Mission Network, Inc., President of Member Mission Press, Chair of the Spiritual Formation Committee for the United Church of Hinesburg, VT, Author, Speaker.and Workshop Leader.]